If you want to see the valley of the dead, bargain with the living
I put off going to Egypt for years. Like Jean des Esseintes, the hero of the novel Reverse, I had only too good idea of what awaited me there. Only the almost complete absence of alternatives and the company of good friends made me finally set off on a three-week trip. However, after going through all the stages of accepting the inevitable, I was rewarded.
The trouble began already at the entrance to the city. The people on the side of the road seemed to be deliberately waiting for the approach of our car in order to rush across. In fact, they simply hoped that the driver of the Mercedes would not step on the gas, or maybe even slow down, and decided that now was the time to rush towards fate, that is, under the wheels.
I understood their tactics later, when a frightened gazelle ran across the multi-lane Corniche embankment, the main transport artery of the city. There are approximately three and a half pedestrian crossings for its 20 km. They really do not make any sense: most drivers in Alexandria are “color blind” – at small intersections, everyone drives from all directions at the same time, regardless of traffic lights.
But they have a very delicate ear: they manage to understand who signaled to whom and for what reason. And this is despite the fact that the sound never stops – after all, the Egyptian car will not budge if you do not press the horn. In addition, a couple of foreign corpses a day for Alexandria's five million population is nothing more than a statistical error.
“A branch of Europe grafted onto Africa” for Henry Morton, “backyards of Europe” for Cavafy, “five races, five languages, a dozen crossbreeds” for Lawrence Durrell – Alexandria, like a pile on a pier with shells, has acquired such a thick layer of literary associations that it is not easy to separate reality from the poetic image of the city.
Moaning over Alexandria as the Europe we have lost is a stupid idea. She never really was, and even if she was, it was definitely not for our arrival that she rejected everything European and plunged into the chaos of an oriental bazaar.
Darrell writes: Parisian sophistication,” & nbsp; – and immediately tells how in a poor quarter, where a driven camel fell, it is cut into pieces right on the street, alive. Of course, the Parisian glitter has faded, but the owners of local antique shops are still polishing the crystal of lamps, and in front of their windows, butchers are butchering a sheep carcass.
It is worth raising your head to see exemplary Barcelona, Naples and Cadiz, and immediately lower it so as not to run into a cart with a mountain of moldy, crusty bread crusts that people sort, throwing them into a pile of slops where cats, dogs, pigeons mixed up. You need to read the character of this city not by facades, but by people. Maybe the famous library is the reason for everything, but the Alexandrians seemed to me the most intelligent, polite and unobtrusive of all the Egyptians.
However, I made the most anthropological discovery in neighboring Rashida (Rosetta), where we were led by a desire to see the Ottoman houses of the XVIII century. The quarter where they are located is entirely occupied by the market, which spills into the streets like a river, or rather, a stream of greasy mud.
Black liquid squelches underfoot, but there is a gastronomic abundance on the shelves: the freshest vegetables and greens, mountains of dates, scarlet meat flesh, flat cakes and glossy, as if covered with Chinese varnish, river fish of all kinds – from catfish and eels to an unfamiliar bug-eyed fry. People in Rosetta rarely see tourists and, even realizing that pure curiosity brought us here and we won’t buy anything, they greet, smile and talk about the product.
I was interested in some indecent white-pink root crop, but from the whole explanation I made out only the word “soup”. When we stumble upon a falafel brazier in an alleyway and, after taking photos, want to buy a bag out of courtesy (well, to try street food), the workers refuse to take the money! Once again: in Egypt they refuse to take money from tourists!
“But mani, yu dont pay!” – the policemen at the Rashid Museum tell us, assigning free security to us. The fact is that in this city tourists are not supposed to walk alone. Whether they were going to protect us from these friendly people or them from us is unclear. But walking under guard is not the most pleasant experience, besides, we have already seen all the most interesting things. At our request, the police escorted us to the nearest hotel, where we dined and returned to Alexandria.
See also Egypt
Alexandria seemed like a quiet provincial place compared to Cairo, literally deafening in those 10 minutes at the station while we were waiting for the Uber. When, after driving through the whole city, I finally ended up at the Belle Epoque hotelin the embassy district of Maadi, he breathed a sigh of relief. The small hotel looked more like a private villa. Beautiful people dined at tables covered with white tablecloths in the garden. With peace of mind, I went to bed.
When the sun rose… more precisely, let's say that it rose: in Cairo, the sun shines as if through a curtain that has not been washed for a long time, which is why the meaning of the expression “Egyptian darkness” takes on a very specific embodiment. The mask has to be worn here not so much because of the pandemic (in 2021 — Note by Vokrugsveta.ru), but because of the smog and sand. In the light of day, I discovered that the garden in our villa had simply been washed, and the trees behind the neighboring fence were covered with a thick layer of brown dust.
The luxurious villas around, fenced off with barbed wire and lined with snipers, were beautiful in their decay. But the trouble came from where they did not expect: it turned out that state institutions, as well as embassies, cannot be photographed. When we tried to film a rather remarkable Egyptomaniac building in the center of Cairo, a man jumped out from behind the gate, rushed across the street and began to demand that the pictures be deleted. “I'm a policeman!” – he said, shaking some laminated paper with an inscription in Arabic.
Why the policeman looks like a shepherd, we decided not to find out, noticing he had a pistol in a holster under a greasy jacket. “Well, we will delete the photo, but what kind of building is this that cannot be photographed?” – “Israeli Embassy!” Of course, they meant the synagogue, also called the “Gates of Paradise.” It is clear that with such protection, even true Jews are barred from entering paradise, but at least the pictures are preserved in the “deleted” folder.
Fearing the crowds, we decided to deal with the pyramids at the very beginning. The first thing we heard at the entrance was the exclamations of the staff about how lucky we were with the guide. I thought it was some kind of conspiracy. The fact is that at any sight you will definitely be met by a person who calls himself an Egyptologist. There is some truth in this: anyone who knows how to cross the street without getting hit by a car has the right to be called that (as I did by the end of the trip).
However, the true Egyptologist was our Gabber, who lived for four years in a tent near the pyramids during excavations. Intelligent, with a quiet voice, polite and infinitely knowledgeable, having completed the mandatory program, he said: “Let's go, I'll show you where I worked” – and took us to places where ordinary tourists were not allowed to enter. The guard at the excavation site gave us tea at his tent.
Either the presence of Gabber did its job, or the sellers of plastic pyramids completely despaired of selling anything to a few tourists, but in Giza no one pestered us. True, as soon as I approached the Sphinx, a short man with a puffy muzzle wove out of the air in front of my nose, who asked in pure Russian: “How are you? Do you want a photo? Ai-yay-yay, you won’t spread thanks on bread. Why so angry?”
After brushing him off somehow, we soon retreated, hearing how the short man said the same thing in the purest New York dialect to the other couple. And of course, I recognize the face of this short man out of a thousand, but I don’t remember what the Sphinx looks like up close.
We asked Gabber to accompany us to the Egyptian Museum, but even he was powerless to mitigate the nightmarish impression he makes museum with the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.
The only reasonable explanation is that the joy of discovering these treasures was so great that the Egyptians want to relive it, that is, to re-dig up antiquities from under a layer of museum dust. Unwashed since the days of Howard Carter, the broken-legged showcases with padlocks, the exhibits woven with cobwebs, the almost complete absence of lighting and boarded-up boxes everywhere – all this resembles a warehouse, but in no way a museum generously subsidized by world cultural funds.
On Tahrir Square in front of the Egyptian Museum, the traffic lights, of course, do not work. I suppose this was done so that the locals in these dark times could at least somehow have fun with the sight of tourists crossing the avenue and earn a pound or two from the poor fellows. “Wear from? Welcome to Egypt! Am a note guide, am a student. Ai show yu how to cross the street like egypshen!” The next day, in the same place, I hear a familiar voice “Am student …”.
The goal of most Cairo molesters is to provide you with as much detail as possible of absolutely unnecessary information and services that you do not need. Why, for example, are shoe shiners in the Arab quarter, who will beckon you, waving a black brush and rag, especially if you are wearing beige suede sneakers. At first, these conversations make you laugh, then they strain, and finally they start to piss you off, and you answer harshly:
— Wear from?
? @#! No answer…
Talking with Cairo molesters is more of a pleasant small talk than Luxor ones.. Since there are almost no tourists, you become too visible a target for literally everyone, and the journey becomes more and more like a computer quest: bypass the false Egyptologist, jump over the cab, dodge the seller of pharaoh's heads, avoid falling into the clutches of a taxi driver and get to the hotel without losing your wallet and peace of mind.
But these are the rules of the game: if you want to see the valley of the dead, bargain with the living.
The next day on the west bank of the Nile, we needed a car for the day. Of course, the driver of the old Ford, one of whose doors opened only from the outside, immediately blurted out: “Welcome to Egypt! Yu know how mach? Believe the chip!” – and named the price of the monthly rent. But we know what a symmetrical response is! I offered a shockingly low price. We argued for five minutes. The strategy “there are plenty of cars, we will agree with another” worked. Abdulla became visibly sad: “Something you are suspiciously good at bargaining!” – and opened the car door.
Do not seek rest in the valley of the dead. Here everyone who knows three words in English expects gratitude from you, especially if he does not deserve any gratitude. At the checkpoint in the Valley of the Kings the size of a bus station, if you left the toilet, despising the janitor holding the door, he will run after you shouting: “This is my toilet!” It is useless to explain that the toilet belongs to the Ministry of Antiquities and could be better kept (like the antiquities themselves) is useless.
Each guard in the tombs of the pharaohs considers them their property and personal business. With the ostentatious hospitality of the owner, whose concern is difficult to get rid of, he will follow you on your heels and point to the obvious: “Nefertari, Amon, Aysis – bakshish.” And this despite the fact that the entrance to the most beautiful tombs of Nefertari and Seti I costs 90 and 65 dollars, respectively (in 2023, the ticket price is 50 and 35 dollars, respectively. — Note by Vokrugsveta.ru) . The Luxor Pass saves a lot, but it's harder to get than a Pharaoh to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are alone in the Ramesseum, and the guard is trailing behind us again. “Ware from? Rush! Welcome to Egypt! Hear Ramses…” And we, of course, thought that this was the Queen of Sheba!
“Sorry, we’d love to enjoy the silence.” The guard steps back and turns on a computer game whose sound shakes the pillars. Fortunately for us, a couple more tourists appear, and he switches to them.
Souvenir sellers, at your approach, begin to bang the heads of the pharaohs on the walls of the shop: “Yu si, real stone, not plastic, yu know how mach? Ten dollar, five … three … van! You are lost if you give up. I recall the story of Henry Morton, who bought the hand of a mummy in the Valley of the Kings in order to bury her and save her from dishonor. He immediately became known as a man who buys the hands of mummies, and sellers on both banks of the Nile held them out to him until the end of the journey.
Returning to Luxor, I decided to walk to the hotel along the promenade at sunset. I had enough for five minutes: during this time, about two dozen people rushed to me from all sides, as if they saw the earthly incarnation of the god Ra, who immediately needed boats, carts, camels and concubines. Everyone will have to say “no” ten times. Nowhere in the world have I seen such impudence. By the end of the day, I dreamed of falling into the eternal sleep of the pharaoh and not hearing anyone. The next morning we left Luxor without regret.
Depression: train to Aswan
Good morning in Egypt begins with bargaining with a taxi driver. At such moments, you understand how beautiful the grin of capitalism is with an Uber arriving in five minutes. On the way to the station, the driver said that since I had not warned him about the second passenger, the agreed price would be twice as high.
In response, he received such a tirade that he remained silent until the end of the journey. We arrived about 20 minutes before the train departure so as not to stray around the station. Four people, including two conductors, carefully checked our tickets. The composition moved. 15 minutes ahead of time. Needless to say, we got on the wrong train?!
Fortunately, we managed to find out that it also goes to Aswan, and the journey takes the same amount, but the categories of trains are different. Not that we expected to be in a Pullman compartment, and here, too, there was a first-class carriage, where, like in all the others, people who had traveled all night from Cairo were sleeping side by side, the seats were black with dirt, and leftovers were scattered everywhere. I can't chalk this up to the taxi driver's curse.